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Carolina Panthers 2022 Offseason Preview: Pending free agents, team needs, draft picks, and more

The Carolina Panthers enter 2022 with many team needs, several pending free agents, limited draft picks, and modest salary cap space.

The Carolina Panthers’ 2021 regular season was ugly. Their 2022 offseason might be even uglier. The Panthers have limited NFL Draft picks, several pending free agents, an inflexible cap situation, and many, many team needs. But the biggest challenge for general manager Scott Fitterer? Finding a quarterback who helps the team win.

Carolina Panthers 2022 Offseason Preview

Neither Cam Newton nor Sam Darnold helped the Panthers win in 2021. Carolina was at or near the bottom of the league for much of the season in team passer rating, Offensive Value Metric, expected points added (EPA) per dropback, and yards per play.

Newton will not be back in 2022, but Darnold will be. He is due $18.9 million fully guaranteed — a disaster of the Panthers’ own making. When they traded multiple draft picks for him last spring (including a 2022 second-rounder), they picked up his fifth-year option. That was stacking one unforced error on top of another.

That decision significantly impacted the Panthers’ ability to do business in free agency — which we’ll get into further. Darnold is essentially untradeable. He will be on the roster unless he retires. Now, Carolina could conceivably use its first-round pick on a quarterback, but that would be foolish for multiple reasons.

The Panthers have many other needs and only one pick in the first two days. Plus, the biggest advantage of drafting a quarterback is the freedom that his rookie contract grants teams financially. Why would the Panthers start the clock on a new QB in a year in which they cannot build around him? Now, if Fitterer decides to move back in the first round, acquire a second-rounder in the process, and use that additional pick on a developmental quarterback, we’re all for it.

Panthers have $28.6 million in projected cap space

Source: Spotrac (as of Jan. 9)

The Panthers’ cap situation is alarming. They have the 12th-least space in the league, and unlike most of the teams ahead of them, they don’t have a lot of wiggle room without significantly eating into their 2023 space.

Darnold, right tackle Taylor Moton, outside linebacker Shaq Thompson, receivers Robby Anderson and DJ Moore, and running back Christian McCaffrey together are projected to account for nearly half of the Panthers’ 2022 salary cap obligations. And cutting those players would cost them $25 million more than having them on the team.

Panthers’ pending free agents

The only reason the Panthers weren’t completely awful was that their defense — particularly their pass defense — was fantastic. They were among the league leaders in yards per play, yards per pass, and sack rate. But a bunch of players who made that happen are going to want to get paid.

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The following key defensive contributors are UFAs: cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Donte Jackson, edge defender Haason Reddick, linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr., and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. Newton and center Matt Paradis are among the Panthers’ free agents on offense.

How do the Panthers’ free agents rank among the best available in 2022? Be sure out our list of top free agents available at each position to find out.

Panthers’ team needs

No need to discuss the quarterback situation anymore. It’s bleak. But so is the offensive line that was bad at run bocking and worse at pass protecting. Carolina’s skill-position players are good enough, and the defense has real talent. But the Panthers had no chance this year due to their offense.

The problem for the Panthers is that the best part of the team is about to lose a number of key contributors. Therefore, they cannot simply just focus on the offense in the offseason. They need to get the offense up to standard while also making sure they don’t fall off on defense. That is going to be a tough balancing act for head coach Matt Rhule. The Panthers desperately need the defensive talent acquired in the 2020 NFL Draft to start performing.

Panthers’ top five needs in the 2022 NFL offseason

  • Quarterback
  • Offensive tackle
  • Guard
  • Center
  • Corner

Panthers’ 2022 NFL Draft picks

The Panthers are projected to have six picks in April’s draft, but only two of their own and just one in the first two days. The Jets receive Carolina’s second and fourth-round picks as compensation in the Darnold trade, and the Panthers’ third-rounder belongs to the Jaguars as part of the C.J. Henderson swap.

Here’s how the Panthers’ 2022 NFL Draft picks currently stand according to the draft order:

  • Round 1 (Pick 6)
  • Round 4 (Pick 3 — from HOU)
  • Round 5 (Pick 1 — from JAX & Pick 6)
  • Round 6 (Pick 20* — from LV)
  • Round 7 (Pick 31* — from TEN)

*Pick subject to change based on 2022 NFL playoffs.

Adam Beasley is the National NFL Analyst and Insider for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Adam’s work here and give him a follow on Twitter @AdamHBeasley.

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